The Spring Cabbage called to me from the top of the supermarket shelf, muffled by its clear, flexible plastic wrapping, in a voice that was sort of squeaky and green. I picked it up and checked the origin. Grown in Lincolnshire, UK. Spring Cabbage. Now it had me. I imagined a field lined with rows of small, loose-leaved cabbages beaded with iridescent drops of spring rain. I pictured walking along those rows in boots thick with calf-aching quantities of thick russet clay mud - clarty is the word we always used for that exact sort of clay that makes you several inches taller and a pound or two heavier - and stooping to cut through the thick stem of a choice head or two.
And as I continued to stand in the supermarket aisle (probably blocking the way for other less-dreamy shoppers), I imagined washing the cabbage and slicing it finely, the knife squeaking through the freshness of the leaves and stalk, and then dunking the shreds into a rolling boil of very well-salted water. So I took it home.
Matters get a little vague and generic when you pry into exactly what is a Spring Cabbage. Answers come back variously that they are just immature cabbages picked while in the loosely leafy phase or that they are a variety on their own. Spring cabbage is the first in a continuum of this type of unstructured brassica that extends into summer and then, somewhat prosaically, called Summer Cabbage. The first tend to be a lighter greyish green and the further into the summer you go the darker, smoother, sweeter and more flexible the leaves become, perfect for substituting for vine leaves in a minty, herbal simmered rice parcel. But this can a bit of a faff and my mind is on simpler explorations.
The Romans think nothing of serving a plate of simple wild chicory, spinach or plain green beans solo with the sparest of dressings, so why should we not with our own British Spring Cabbage? The sort of supper I often have when on my own is to toss a good bowlful of drained and soft cabbage with plenty of melted salty butter, sharp lemon and a bracing sprinkle of sea salt and black pepper. I could eat bowl after bowl of this, and often do, despite being told by a well-meaning (but I thought definitely misguided) fashion person some years ago, that eating cabbage didn't suit my blood type. I rebelled inwardly because I love cabbage. What a tangle we often can get into!
Other worthy combinations could include the ubiquitous soy (at least in my kitchen), some buttery golden mushrooms or even with some soured cream and nutmeg. And we mustn't forget the brilliantly nostalgic association with gravy and a few slices of rare beef.
But, that night after the supermarket, tired and hungry I went for a simple bowlful, embellished with streaky bacon and finished with toasted aromatic fennel that combines so well with the bacon and the cabbage too.
Spring Cabbage, Streaky Bacon & Toasted Fennel
1 tbsp fennel seeds
2 onions, peeled, sliced
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
6 slices good streaky bacon, sliced into 2cm squares
500g spring cabbage, washed, halved, hard root removed, and sliced finely
Lemon juice to taste
sea salt and black pepper
Toast the fennel seeds until fragrant in a large, hot, dry pan. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Turn down the heat under the pan you've used for the fennel seeds. Add the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then the onions and toss until the shards are glistening with oil and vinegar. Cook slowly until they are just softening, then add the streaky bacon. Cook both for a further 3-5 minutes until golden and sticky.
While the onions are cooking boil a large pot of water for the cabbage. Add a
good dose of salt to the water. Then blanch the cabbage in the boiling water for 3-4 minutes until tender. Quickly strain the cabbage until quite dry and tip back into the onion and bacon pan. Stir around generously to amalgamate all the flavours, then add the lemon juice, salt and pepper and more olive oil, tasting and adjusting the seasonings to your palate. Finally add the toasted fennel seeds and tip onto a warm plate to eat up.